Said Rabbi Elazar: Every man was created
in order to toil, as it is written, “For man is born
to toil”(Job 5:7). I still do not know, however, if
he was created for the toil of the mouth or for the toil
of work; when the verse says, “[The toiling soul...]
his mouth compels him,” this tells me that he was
created for the toil of the mouth. I still do not know,
however, if he was created for the toil of Torah or for
the toil of speech; when the verse says, “This book
of Torah should not depart from your mouth,” this
tells me that he was created for the toil of Torah –
Talmud, Sanhedrin 99b
Labor Day in America – which informally marks the end of
summer and the beginning of the work and school year – always falls out in
the days preceding Rosh Hashana.
Quite fitting since Rosh Hashana is the collective birthday
of the human race, when we begin a new cycle of life and assess anew our mission
– the purpose of all our labor in this world.
Last week we explored the roots of work, its vices and
virtues, and the need to permeate our material labor with a higher spiritual
Let us now review the actual nature of our labor and how
we can ensure that our work be connected to its higher purpose.
The Talmud tells us that there the human being needs to
be involved in three types of labor: the “toil of work,” the “toil of speech,”
and the “toil of Torah.”
On a most basic level the human being, created in the Divine
image, has the power and the need to create. We are not merely passive recipients
accepting the status quo around us, but through our hard work we have the
ability to change the world in which we live. Only when he toils does man
have full satisfaction and pleasure. As our sages tell us, “a person desires
one measure from his own labor more than nine measures [given to him as gift]
from another.” Effortless gain is called “bread of shame.”
The “toil of work” allows us to become partners with G-d
in existence. When we plow and seed the earth to coax nourishment from it,
when we forge wood, stone and other materials into a home, when we distill
energy from matter, we are working. This is toilsome work, for we are combating
the inert state of these “raw” materials. It is G-dly work, for we are furthering
His enterprise of forming an ordered and civilized world out of an initial
state of “chaos and formlessness.” We are fulfilling the divine will expressed
in the verse: “He did not create [the world] for chaos; He created it that
it be settled.”
A higher level of partnership
is achieved when we introduce our “speech”—our capacity for creativity—into
shaping the world around us. When we redefine reality by communicating our
experience of it to others, when we speak ideas into being, when we dialogue
and communicate with each other, we add a new dimension into existence, just
as G-d spoke the world into existence. On this level, we are partners with
Him not only in that we are both contributors, but also in that we are both
The “toil of speech” does
not just develop existing material resources, but it adds the synergetic creativity
that comes through communication.
Finally comes the “toil
of Torah,” the effort to impose a higher, supra-natural reality upon the world
by implementing the divine will, as expressed in the Torah, in our daily lives.
In other words human creativity
has three dimensions: The “toil of work” – what we contribute through our
labor in developing existing resources. The “toil of speech” – a new dimension
introduced through our creativity. The “toil of Torah” – which creates transcendent
energy, reaching beyond human creativity.
For our labor and toil to be healthy it has to include
all three forms of work: development, creativity and transcendence. Only then
can our labor be aligned with its higher purpose and lift us to great heights.
Divorced of these three dimensions – as in labor that is
driven primarily for profit or other motives – labor will crush us with its
sheer weight. Materialism on its own is a “land that consumes its inhabitants.”
Witness all the corruption resulting from human greed and narcissism.
Note as well that the order of the three labors is also
precise. The latter two forms of toil (speech and Torah) are not sufficient.
One must begin with physical work, the “toil of work.” Indeed, most of our
time is spent immersed in material labor. Our actions have the power to transform
the universe. Yet, for the work to be complete and connected with our higher
calling, we need to complement the “toil of work” with the “toil of speech,”
our creativity and communicative skills, and above that – the “toil of Torah,”
introducing spiritual transcendence into our material activities.
So, as a Labor Day exercise as well as an Elul exercise,
ask yourself: Does my life include these three types of labor? Is my material
work integrated with the other two forms of toil, or am I completely overwhelmed
by my job and career?
Am I working only to survive or only for profit? Does my
work have any higher purpose?
In two weeks time we will have a rendezvous with destiny
– we renew our contract with life and embrace anew our mission statement.
Now is the time to review and realign the balance of your
activities. If you are too immersed in your material labor, now is the time
to introduce the other two dimensions. Find ways to use your work to help
make the world a better place. Volunteer your time and skills to virtuous
causes. Infuse your work with a refined sense of ethics. Be a mentsch.
What better way to prepare for the cosmic birthday coming
in two weeks?